Monday, June 14, 2004

Academic darkness 

This morning's copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education's daily report (for subscribers only, as will be the links herein) contains two stories concerning academic freedom. Edward Waters College, a small historically black school in Florida, has fired five administrators in what is the latest in a long line of problems at the school. (Here's an AP summary of the case, which omits several details that appear in the CHE article.) One of the administrators, Communications Department chairwoman Jayme Bradford, claims it's a case of the administration favoring a popular student.
In the case of her firing, Ms. Bradford said she thinks the college may have been trying to protect a student who was accused of academic dishonesty, because of her popularity as a campus leader.

"They're paranoid about any information getting out to the public," said the former dean of students, Juan P. Gray, who was also recently fired. "It's not an environment of academic freedom. It's academic darkness."

Calls last week to the college's president, Jimmy R. Jenkins, and to its department of institutional advancement were not returned.

The student, a senior, was caught and admitted to deleting failing grades from her transcripts last fall in a document related to her planned graduation. The college's judiciary committee recommended her suspension, but the president vetoed it, and she was cleared for graduation, said Ms. Bradford, who was the student's academic adviser and who brought the case to the committee.

President Jenkins "said that I could have handled it differently," she said.

Four of the fired administrators were involved in some way with that incident, said Mr. Gray. "It's strange to me that everybody [fired] had an intimate connection to this student," he said.

Ms. Bradford compared the student's academic dishonesty, which included altering the transcript, plagiarism, and cheating, to the acts of the disgraced journalist Jayson Blair. She said that, in person, the young woman seemed "like the perfect student," and that her graduation could help the college's image. "They wanted her to do well," she said. "I think it's favoritism."
Interesting. But a local TV station report suggests that the reason for the termination instead is the release of a student's paper about the laxity of campus security just hours before the student was killed. Bradford released some of the student's schoolwork.

The administration claims Bradford's account is "inaccurate" but in a written press release refuses to elaborate.

In a second article, the Chronicle reports on the activities of the AAUP in censuring schools for violations of academic freedom. Top of the list is Philander Smith College, another historically black institution that has a problem with faculty talking to the media.
Philander Smith, the oldest historically black college in Arkansas, was censured because it violated a professor's academic freedom when it dismissed her on grounds of insubordination, according to the AAUP. Janice S. Chaparro, an assistant professor of social work, was terminated after speaking to a local newspaper about conditions at the college without first alerting the president's office.

The college, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, also terminated the appointments of four other full-time faculty members, stating that financial conditions had required it to reduce the size of the faculty and staff (The Chronicle, November 12, 2002).

But a 2002 report by the AAUP asserted that the college did not first demonstrate a bona fide condition of financial exigency. The report maintained that the professors had been released neither because of a lack of seniority nor a negative evaluation of their professional performance, but because of disloyalty to the administration.

Philander Smith's departing president, Trudie Kibbe Reed, did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment. But Stephen Schafer, the college's dean of institutional advancement, called the AAUP document a "nicely padded, erroneous report."

He said that Ms. Chaparro had violated "a simple policy" that appeared in a directive on public statements sent out by the college's president. The directive, quoted in the AAUP report, said that "all communications with accrediting bodies and agencies, state agencies, newspapers, and other media discussing the professional and internal business of the college shall be coordinated though the president's office."

"It will be considered an act of insubordination," the directive continued, "for any faculty or staff person to contact any such entity without the prior approval of the president of the college and will be grounds for immediate termination."

After receiving the directive, the AAUP report said, Ms. Chaparro read and faxed it to a local newspaper, but declined to comment on it, whereupon she was fired without due process.
The school claims the information Prof. Chaparro gave to the press and to an accrediting body was "incorrect".